Thursday, October 10, 2019

What did Justin Trudeau and the 2015 Liberal platform team do wrong on electoral reform

While partisans from opposition parties and supportive multi-partisan interest groups have their own take on what went wrong with electoral reform after the 2015 election, I'll offer a non-partisan take on what Justin Trudeau did wrong.

Platforms are increasingly decided by an inner-circle within the bureaucracy of a political party, in close consultation with the party leader and executive.  It is therefore appropriate to focus blame for failures on those few individuals, rather than all candidates or elected members with that party affiliation.

We should start with a reminder of what was included in the 2015 Liberal platform

We will make every vote count.
We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. 
We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. 
This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.


Lets parse what Justin Trudeau and his platform team did wrong with each component:

We will make every vote count.



This is a loaded term that means different, and often incompatible, things to different people.  The platform team were either unaware of the complexities of electoral reform, or were trying to deceive people into believing that it was their meaning that the platform was using.

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. 

If this commitment was strong, then other steps would not have been carried out in a way that would have predictably lead to failure.

We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.

If the commitment was to have 2015 be the last federal election under FPTP, then why convene a committee that is constituted differently than any other parliamentary committee?  Convening a committee to study a variety of reforms, including a variety of things that a proportional system can be proportional to, should not start by forming a committee that is proportional to alleged support for political parties.

The idea that elections and parliament should be focused only on political parties, with no consideration for any other demographic trait of potential representatives, is itself controversial.  Misunderstandings and misrepresentations about these very different criteria for success is behind why reform is so hard in Canada.

An unbiased study would have found that the three most common things different people are focused on when voting in parliamentary elections are:

  1. Those whose focus is on what party forms government.  For them the choice is really between the top two parties representing two visions, with there being little or no interest in other parties or the individual people who are candidates in the election.
  2. Those whose focus is on what parties have seats in parliament.  For them the choice is between the likely less than 10 parties who have sufficient support to gain seats, and they also have little or no interest in the specific individuals who are candidates in the election.
  3. Those who want the people with the most voter support to act as representatives.  For them party affiliation is one demographic trait among many, and want to be able to include other criteria in their decision of which people (plural) they believe could represent them.

Each group has different features of systems they believe is ideal
  1. For this group, First Past The Post is the ideal system, as the single vote plurality encourages people to vote for one of the top two parties otherwise your vote will split or otherwise be exhausted.
  2. For this group party lists are seen as ideal (some claim necessary), as the single party vote requires people to vote narrowly along party lines and thus makes any vote for a party count equally.
  3. For this group any ballot that forces people to vote narrowly along party lines via party lists, or gives certain voters an unequal vote because they vote along party lines, moves us further away from making every vote count.  This group will reject any system which includes party lists or groups different candidates together along party lines.  They don't want their vote for one person to transfer to another person they didn't vote for. They might feel being forced to make a single choice among 10 options country-wide isn't much different than a choice between 2. This group also doesn't believe that there is only "one right answer" to a question with more than two options, so will want to either rank their choices or mark multiple choices they approve of. They will want their ballot to not be exhausted quickly and have no influence, so will want their ballot to be able to transfer beyond a small number of candidates (for instance via multi-member districts or similar).

This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament.

Between June 21, 2016 and November 28, 2016 the Special Committee on Electoral Reform carried out the study.  This was 6 months of study, with a final report being tabled in December which is 13 months after the government was formed.

A proper study would have determined the complexities of the different positions, recognized there was no consensus, and suggested a way to move forward that had a majority of support. Unfortunately by putting the focus on parties this biased the study towards parties and their interests, as can be seen by a number of the recommendations.


  • The NDP and Elizabeth May were in group 2, and forced a criteria for success (a low Gallagher index) that group 2 wants, but that group 1 and group 3 both reject as being invalid (or even counterproductive, as it seeks to optimize for what some in group 3 consider harmful hyper-partisanship)
  • The Conservative members wanted to embarrass the Liberals at any cost, and ensure that the Liberals couldn't fulfill their campaign promise.  As the opposition was granted a majority of the members on committee, it was trivial to orchestrate this by requiring a referendum.  Any time Canadians have been given a referendum on the Gallagher index it has failed, so these two criteria together guaranteed failure.
  • The Liberals on the committee presented a Supplemental Report of the Liberal Members of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform which confirmed the complexity of reform and the invalidity of the Gallagher index as a criteria for success.  In doing so they essentially contradicted the authors of the 2015 Liberal platform as platform suggested the issue could have a satisfactory resolution before the next election.  The Liberal caucus members admitting in their minority report that the platform team was wrong was the most surprising aspect of the report.

It was not surprising that the government response rejected recommendations 1, 2 and 12 relating to the Gallagher index (noting that testimony did not lead to that recommendation) with 12 also including the referendum.

Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.


I will repeat where I started: "The platform team were either unaware of the complexities of electoral reform, or were trying to deceive people into believing that it was their meaning that the platform was using."

The ERRE committee work happened at a predictable pace, and left only 5 months to introduce legislation.

As the 10 independent Electoral Boundaries Commissions could not complete a process to change boundaries within 5 months, or even necessarily before the next election, the quickly introduced legislation would need to work with the existing boundaries.   While that would satisfy the third group as they don't want districts redrawn, this would have been rejected by the group who want party lists or other systems which propose redrawing electoral boundaries.

As the second group often believe that systems based on ranked ballots in multi-member districts are "proportional" a compromise was possible, but that never offered by the opposition.  In fact the opposition and interest groups from group 2 continued to promote the idea that ranked ballot systems could be "improved" in the future by adding "top-up" party lists to better meet their Gallagher index criteria for success, making it impossible to have a reasonable discussion about any compromise.

With no compromise offered, and confusion continually generated by one of the groups ignoring the interests of other voters, reform was impossible in such a short time-frame.

The complexity of moving forward with reform should have been understood, and any promise of enacting legislation in a short time period should have started with stating the criteria for success and not falsely claiming that legislation would easily follow from some non-existent consensus on success criteria.

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